Defining Moments: Rajat Sharma: A difficult climb

By afaqs! news bureau , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | July 18, 2011
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Rajat Sharma, chairman, Independent News Service and editor-in-chief, India TV, chats with afaqs! about the core turning points of his career.

My childhood was about seven brothers, an ailing mother, father and sister - living in a 10 x 10 room in old Delhi, without any water and electricity. I went to a municipality school. Studying at night meant sitting under the lamp post at a nearby railway station. Yet, I have fond memories of my childhood.

One incident played a huge role in shaping my life. Television sets being quite rare in homes those days, the entire mohallah would go to a neighbour's home as it had one. But, at times, they wouldn't allow us to enter. One day, after I returned home disappointed, I spoke to my father about it, and he said, "You should do something to ensure you appear on television and people watch you." The words stuck.

My first major moment in life came when after completing my M Com, I started looking out for a summer job and met Janardan Thakur, who had just left Anandabazar Patrika. He was planning to start a syndicated column. He hired me as a researcher. One day, I sought permission to use information from the research for my work.

I wrote my first story for the Onlooker magazine, and got Rs 300 for it - a much better deal, as compared to the Rs 400 a month that I earned from my regular job. I joined Onlooker magazine as a trainee reporter. By 1984, I'd been made the chief-of-bureau, and in 1985, the editor. I shifted to Mumbai.

Early success has its own drawbacks. People simply kept judging me by my age. Dom Moraes and Shobhaa De, the regular columnists, refused to accept a 28-year-old as an editor. It was much later that Shobhaa and I became friends. After three years, I moved to Sunday Observer as an editor, and then to The Daily, again as editor. It is unfortunate that all three papers I edited, don't exist anymore.

My second-biggest defining moment came 10 years later in 1992, when I met Subhash Chandra on a flight. He had just started Zee TV and was looking for an interesting interview programme. I gave him a rough print for Aap ki Adalat.

When Subashji later called me up asking whether I would like to host the show, I simply couldn't believe him. With a little persuasion, I agreed and Aap ki Adalat went on air on March 13, 1992. This show made me a 'somebody'. It's been 18 years now. I went on to set up the news and current affairs division for Zee, and started the first private bulletin, Zee News, in 1995.

The third turning point in my life was when I decided to launch my news channel, India TV. Launched in 2004, it soon turned into a nightmare. It was planned as a serious news channel on the lines of global news channels. We had Tarun Tejpal for investigative reporting, Maneka Gandhi for animal welfare, and Madhu Kishwar for women welfare.

For the first two years, we were bleeding and funds dried up. I was forced to sell my property to raise money for paying salaries. I was left with two options - to accept defeat and shut it, or else change the way I was going about things. I decided to go for the latter.

We changed the programme mix in 2008. From serious, we switched to 'popular' news. The channel rose steadily, and in six-eight months, had become the No. 2 news channel.

Revenues started flowing in. I started a three-hour-long live show, and we became the nation's most-watched news channel.

Our focus on ratings had made us hungry for popular content. After reaching the top in 2009, we started 'cleaning up'. I told my team no more snakes and ghosts, the focus should be on news. I can say that today, India TV has the highest news content amongst the top three Hindi news channels. I am satisfied that I have to no longer make compromises to stay on top.

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